Exclusive Theo Parrish interview for J.A.W Family Reunion 2019
Carhartt WIP presents the second edition of J.A.W Family Reunion, which introduces three unmissable live shows in collaboration with Theo Parrish and his label Sound Signature. To accompany this very special weekend, today we feature a very special interview that Sound Signature family member Nicole Misha did with Theo Parrish, chatting Black Jazz Records, Sound Signature, the J.A.W. family weekend and more. Read it below and be sure to join the J.A.W. Family this upcoming weekend for a dance.
Nicole Misha: So we're in partnership with the JAW team and Carhartt WIP for the upcoming Black Jazz All Stars 50th anniversary. Can you share how you first became aware of the Black Jazz label?
Theo Parrish: Unbeknownst to me, the first song I was ever allowed to hear in utero through headphones on my mom's belly was Infant Eyes by Doug and Jean Carn. That was ’72. I obviously don't remember it from there. But when I was about 13 or 14, I pilfered that same record my mom's record collection when I began to start djing. I wasn’t able to truly grasp it. It didn’t have the beat my teenage mind was looking for at the time. It was beyond my understanding of music.
Nicole Misha: So what was the moment that something off the label truly hit you in a way you were able to receive at the time?
Theo Parrish: It was another moment that I heard Doug Carn’s Higher Ground. I was driving from Detroit to Cleveland at the time. And I was listening to a mix cd and I don’t remember who the mix cd was from. But it was time in my life where I was struggling with whether or not I was gonna continue doing music and continue djing. I was listening and all of a sudden the mix stopped, and then this like weird, what I thought was like a proto-techno kinda jam came on. Cuz the beginning of it goes “durr duh durr dah durr,” and all of a sudden the drop hit and “… duh…hiiiggheerr groounndd” and it was so unexpected considering the mix, and how fast I was driving, and the things I was going through personally and emotionally. That when it hit I just started bawling, just crying. Cause it was like, everything that I thought I was, I wasn’t. And everything I wanted to become, I felt like I couldn’t be. And this song was just giving me the bravery to do it, and the bravery move forward. Cause you got hope in there. And this was me totally disregarding the lyrics. This is me just hearing. Cause the first time I heard it I was really wasn’t able to follow everything that they’re saying informationally. But the chorus, “higher ground.” Keep coming back. Keep steppin. Keep moving forward. Keep on. Basically the age old thing, that so many Black artists and children of the diaspora, that we put in our music, which is an old trope if you look at it from the outside of the culture. But it’s a necessary element that all of our expression kind of requires. And that’s continuing. Because all of us are limited by being here. And that’s probably one of the most universal things about that song in particular. That I think it’s one of those thing that every single person, every single child of the diaspora needs to hear. Now not every person needs to hear that cuz they’re not going to understand it in the context of how it was created because they simply are not subject to those pressures, and will never be. Even if they can empathize or be knowledgable. What has to be appreciated and is often debated, and what in my opinion has made Europeans and other white people upset is the fact that a lot of music we create is because of the pain that’s at the hands of those very people and their ancestors. That’s the ongoing paradox of appreciating quote unquote conscious music. Because we don’t put the quotes; those quote aren’t ours. We don’t apply quotes. We can’t, we don’t have the distance or the comfort to make something kitschy. To quote something or to call something a something because it’s too critical a tale. I’m trying to make sure I teach my children how to survive in this wilderness. And it’s not just the American wilderness. They’re going to be subject to bullshit wherever they go. And so those kinds of pressures aren’t shared. And well-meaning people other than Black people who want to help music along have to understand this shit. That as much as you want to be included in what this is as a cultural definer, as a cultural strengthener, as a vitamin almost. You don’t have the deficiencies to even absorb all the nutrients inside of it. It’s as if the way history and the way the world has worked has created the conditions that made that vitamin necessary. And Doug and Jean Carn are that medicine.
Nicole Misha: So do you feel like music and urgency are intertwined? Or do you feel like they’re essential? Does music have to be urgent? Or does music that you play have to be urgent?
Theo Parrish: I say for me particularly, it’s very difficult for me to push forward music whether I’m playing it or making it that could be forgotten or could play the background very easily. I do feel like because there’s so much music out there that doesn’t necessarily have that same mission, and that there’s a whole lot more people into and playing and making those kinda tunes, that somebody has to care about these things. And it just so happens that it’s natural; I’m attracted to those kind of qualities in songs, where they’re rich, where they have an intensity. And whether that intensity is expressed with a lot of energy or if it’s expressed with space or both. Just more the idea of there being a certain amount of content that people need. Particularly the community that the music comes from. And of course the irony and the paradox is that, my particular audience is not necessarily Black Americans. Although that’s changing. But that’s largely because of how music is pushed, and how there isn’t really a culture of music for health’s sake or for expressions’ sake or safety’s sake. It’s more for the commercial and for selling things where we’re at. But I do feel that the idea of music as an ideal is to carry a message, is to make you feel good; but more than that, make you feel something. And as long as you’re feeling something then that’s a good start no matter what community it comes from. But particularly I do feel that music coming from the diasporic community… I don’t know if it’s fair and I don’t care if it’s fair, but I feel like it needs to carry weight. Whether that weight is a reflection on the experience. Whether that’s weight in terms of it freeing you from what you have to deal with. Or weight that’s talking about direct lessons about how to survive this shit. But I do feel like ideally it carries weight. Even if it’s instrumental. That you can feel the weight that’s there. And those kind of subtleties don’t really come across with a lot of commercial music.
Nicole Misha: Speaking to what you said earlier about your audience not always being Black Americans. That has a lot to do with just the music industry at large. Do you feel like that’s going on more now, or do you feel like it’s always been this disparate?
Theo Parrish: At one point in time the messages were a little bit more aligned. I feel that at a certain point in music you had to be excellent to be able to be heard from. Period. Black or otherwise. You simply couldn’t sell shitty music to a whole lot of people at once. You couldn’t have a hit without it being at least a good song. That’s not the case at all anymore. And that’s not necessarily a good or bad thing. What it is just that the music industry has decided to be more of an industry. The idea of moving things quickly to get the most for the least. That’s what the typical capitalist model does. It tries to sell the most with the least amount of value in it. Look at McDonalds. Look at Universal Music. Look at what Universal Music used to be before it was Universal Music. Before these companies decided to combine and eliminate the whole subcategory of labels that were supported by the majors. Stuff like Polydor, where James and Roy were able to have their voice without a whole lot of interference. Where things like the Ensign label are able to put on groups like Incognito. And them being supported and distributed by I think it was RCA. But just the notion that the larger companies were at least aware that even if you didn’t sign a big act and put it on a big thing, they had to be good. But time went on and the 80s came, and you had this shiny shit that sounded expensive, but was made very cheaply still taking those same artists that put that work in. But they had these subcategories, these sub-labels, these budgets that were meant for mini-majors for there to be independent minded music still coming out. And when I say independent minded music I mean things that are more reactive to what people are going through on the ground level. Those mini majors had a big affect. And that affected the field of dance music too. Where you could have Steve Silk Hurley doing remixes of Michael Jackson. And yea, that sounds corny on paper. But at the time that it happened that was really crazy. That this man who made Jack Your Body, is now remixing the king of pop. Those opportunities seem to have shrunk and evaporated even to the point where now, it’s hard to get on a label and be heard, unless you’re doing a 360 deal anyway. Which means you’re not going to get publishing because there’s no actual physical products. So now you’re getting ten cents on the dollar. So there’s no incentive for there to be any artists who are actually telling the absolute truth in the most direct way with the most excellent musicianship that they can get. And there are so many factors I can go into as to why that’s happened. Everything from there being no money in school programs for public schools, there being no bands. And then there’s the promotion of certain musical themes in the Black community. All of a sudden we went from talking about what’s happening in the streets. To being thugs and gangsters. To being straight up cocaine salesman. If these are the “hood tales” of where our community is, speaking from the American aspect of it. That’s far too monolithic. You can tell that that’s programmed. You can tell that has to do with where America wants Black people to be. But there’s still a lot of hope. Because there are places where just as the overground does all this bullshit to try to control people, there’s a whole lot more who that see that that’s not the case. And there’s a new generation who can smell it’s bullshit. So these are good things sometimes. But it’s just tough.
Nicole Misha: So you started and are running a Black-owned independent label. It’s not a P&D. That’s very rare nowadays. Do you consider that a lot? When you’re thinking about the moves you’re making and the vision for the label? Or is that just in the backdrop?
Theo Parrish: That just kinda feels matter of fact. That’s what I did.
Nicole Misha: You don’t feel like it can be more of a burden?
Theo Parrish: Nah. I don’t feel like there’s this weight on my back to represent whatever. It’s real simple. That was all worked out in the beginning of it. (laughs) Like the resolve to decide that this is what I’m gonna do and that’s what the f*** it is. It’s weird. The mentality required to do that necessitates that you don’t give a f*** what anybody else thinks. Left or right. Even if it’s like a “oh wow look he’s independent.” I don’t give a f*** if you think I’m independent or not. I don’t really care. It’s more important that I continue being able to have a voice and to give something that makes people feels good. That I know was designed to literally make people feel good. And if it’s designed that way, and if that happens, and can continue to happen, then mission accomplished. As long as it gets out there. Something that’s an alternative to this bullshit that’s really not getting you to move and to let your head go. And to let your inhibitions drop a bit. Cuz that scares a lot of Black people. What you mean “let my inhibitions go… you mean gangstas dancing?” YEA! Gangsters F***ing Dancing! I saw a gangster dance, it works it happens. They need it more than you think. The gangsters that dance don’t go shoot people afterwards. They might shoot people before. But they won’t after. They might even find the warmth of one of their sisters behind that shit. I’ve seen that happen. Mutherf***ers walk in with their hat banged to the side, but by the end of the night he’s slow dancing with some girl who he met just because he decided to let go. Just that little bit is life changing.
Nicole Misha: To be open…
Theo Parrish: Open! And like that right there is what’s missing. And that’s what I think literally can save us. Or what’s left of us. There’s so many cats going to jail over dumb shit. And they design it like that. It’s all designed that way. And if you’re not going to jail, you’re going to another jail, where ok, you go to school, you make it. And now basically if you want to survive with this larger society you have to assimilate you have to be our token. And that’s why this is kind of dangerous as well. Because in some senses, are we not the tokens for the Europeans that are bringing us over there?
The ironies are what drive you crazy. How do you say what it is that what you need to say. And accept patronage, and not be controlled by the patrons? And not be controlled by the money you get for the patronage? How do you be a rebel and a slave at the same time? And so it becomes very very very particular. So those parts of it f*** with me in some ways. I will admit. Where I go “am I a slave or am I a rebel?” But that’s just a tennis game I play in my mind while I do the work. I don’t necessarily have the time to answer that question. And I answered both sides of it affirmatively and negatively as I’ve gone through history. Because at one point, I know that I was more wild with things because I had no responsibilities. I have two children now things are different so I feel even wilder in some ways and then more conservative in others. So it’s real bugged out. I feel like I want my shit to be more in key now than ever. I want to play with more directness and less worrying than anything else. I wanna play wilder than I’ve been because I want my children to know. I don’t want them to say my dad’s a “House this or House that,” put me in any kind of pigeonhole. So those things are at work but they are in the background.
Nicole Misha: Do you have advice for young black people who are grappling with those contradictions you mentioned?
Theo Parrish: Big advice. Number one. Find like minded people first. Not before you create because I think creation essentially is personal. But I’ll say this two ways, if you’re gonna start something like a label or a party or a movement, something collective. You’re gonna need more than one person. You don’t need more than one person to create, but you do need more than one person to start something bigger than just you. And that starts with likeminded individuals. And that comes down to decisions, and those decisions inform philosophy. It’s not enough to get online and hear somebody say that they believe in this this and this. What the f*** ever. You need to know them. You need to live with them. You need to see what their decisions are in real life. And then you’ll decide if you’re philosophically aligned with them. If they are, then you can talk about how to execute. Then you can see what skills they have. Then you can see if you share the same energy. If someone’s more minded in one direction or another direction.
But if it’s about the decision to create that’s very personal. And there’s only one thing with that. Every moment of your life that you can spare that is not based on making sure that you can survive. Needs to be dedicated for some period of time to the practice of your craft. Whatever that is. Falling in love with the craft, the practice of your craft. Whatever that craft is. And getting our your head that it’s art to begin with. That’s a big mistake. This is not art. These are tools for survival. Let other people call it art. If you sit up and think you’re calling it art in the beginning then it’s very pretentious. And you’re mostly likely gonna follow their motifs. Because that’s how art works. There’s somebody who did something, and then there’s somebody who did something like that something, and then it becomes comparative. And guess what. Nine times out of ten the people who do it aren’t even comparing themselves.If you start at the beginning of your creativity thinking your making art you’re f***in up already. Just create. Express. Do more and more and more and more. Make sure your ratio is high. Make sure that the number of things that you create are way higher than the number of things that actually get released or come out. And don’t let anybody tell you to hurry up. It takes time. You gotta learn the shit. But that’s the creative part. But in terms of like a label or something of that nature. You need people and you gotta make sure that you live with them a bit. So that you know who the fuck they are. Because it’s not enough to get online and try to connect artificially about something that’s that visceral. It’s just not possible. It’s not gonna last. It’ll last as long as your internet service is on.
Nicole Misha: So what are you excited about in the world of Sound Signature? And also how things come out against the backdrop of all these things you’re talking about and you try to present things.
Theo Parrish: I’m really excited about upcoming projects we have coming down the pipe. I’m relieved that this last album is done. I’m excited to get it out and get some of the things I’ve been grappling with out there along with the last lessons I learned. Lessons as in just what I’ve been through.
I’m very excited to see what goes on with other artists on the label. With the people I work with and where their creativity goes. I’m very curious. And having to find myself all the time letting go and waiting. What Julion’s gonna do…what Thomas’ is gonna do…what Nicole’s gonna do…what Deon’s gonna do. And I’m also really curious about what the people in Detroit are doing to. What’s Kyle’s next thing gone do? What’s Kenny’s? What’s Mike’s? What’s Piranha’s? What’s all the creative people around here, what are we doing collectively here because have a unique perspective. And the world will always look to Detroit for music. Especially if the world has the unmitigated gall to have six or seven acts out here with Detroit in their name and none of them beefing. But I wish that we could defend our name a little bit more and that the world would defend our name a little bit more. Recognize the fake from the real. That’s irritating because you guys will pay for them and not pay us. You’ll pay for the fakers but not for the real. And I'm wondering is it because we do things like this at cut-rate prices. And not charge the people who are down to bring us knowing they might not have it. And the only thing that makes the value raised and makes it worth the while is to bring it up. I’ve been hearing stories about a lot of these fakers out here making more than double what I make or what somebody else makes, that’s flat out disrespectful.
Nicole Misha: I want to bring it back to the JAW Family Reunion and another musician who’ll be part of the week’s experience, Mr. Leroy Burgess. Is he someone who’s always been part of your musical consciousness since you can remember?
Theo Parrish: The voice. The voice. I would go to these parties. I would listen to radio. And there would be this voice. That was like THE voice. And I would always confuse, and I don’t mean any diss to either one of you guys cuz I love y’all both, Robert Owens and Leroy Burgess. This is before me knowing names to these songs. This is me at 12. Hearing this shit. Not connecting what was what. Going to these parties hearing Ronnie, hearing Frankie, all these guys playing this shit. And not knowing what’s being played, what’s modern, what’s new. Totally not understanding but knowing that there are these two voices. And I came to find out later after I got the records and I read the shit, that one was Robert Owens and one was Leroy Burgess. Leroy was NY, and Rob was Chicago. And then I realized that Leroy’s older, and Rob was younger. And then I even realized that there is no Robert without Leroy. And so later, one of the most energetic songs… I never understood this song because for me I never understood why these djs would play a “rap song” at at house shows. And that was Let’s Do It. Because at the time in Chicago there was rap and there was house and never the twain shall meet. And rap was new, but that wasn’t our shit. That wasn’t considered part of our community. Now I’m sure Common Sense and all his boys would say different because they were fighting a different fight. But it was a very very small community compared to the amount of Black kids in Chicago that “house music” touched. Quotes because we actually didn’t call it that. Other people called it that. We never called it that. It was just the music of the time. So when “Let’s Do It” came on it would be like… what the f***? “Put your hands up in the air…”
Nicole Misha: That’s so funny that’s considered a rap song and thinking about how rap sounds now.
Theo Parrish: (Laughs) It’s totally not that. I used to be like “aww why is there rap in it?” But then, when the rest of that song comes in…(sings along) it’s just so energetic. So full of hope and power. The energy there is crazy. It would drive people up the wall. The way it was mixed. The way that certain things would come out, the elements of the song. And the way he sung it. And then later I started going into other things like Saturday night… walking downtown. The energy that raises in that, and the background vocals, and woooooh! And let’s not even get into Mainline. "Mainline"; hands down was one of the most powerful songs that you could ever hear on a sound system at the time I heard it. Danny Krivit’s edit of Mainline on R&S, I thought that was the only mix of it. And for the longest time I didn’t know if it was an older song or a newer song. But when that shit would come on, and we talking about…it’s a love song. “Nothing is the same ever since you came my baby. “My life is changed.” Oh my god. And what’s crazy is with nightlife and drugs and shit it’s basically a metaphor for, you know you struck my mainline. “Can’t stop this feeling…” Baby I shot you up and you’re wearing me out!
Nicole Misha: Love is a drug.
Theo Parrish: LOVE IS A DRUG! So that kind of intensity. It’s something no twelve or thirteen years old has any business knowing what the f*** that is. But you can feel that. And your body feels that. I don’t know how many times I nearly jumped out my skin at some party somewhere when "Mainline" came on. I didn’t even know it was called "Mainline" at the time. I thought it was nothing is the same.
Nicole Misha: Yea that’s crazy to think about. Things that are legacies, but are also just moments in our lives.
Theo Parrish: Yea it busted my head wide open.
Nicole Misha: Well this is has been really full and enlightening. Is there anything else you’d like to leave readers with?
Theo Parrish: SUPPORT SOUND SIGNATURE.
Nicole Misha: Haha yes! Support us! Buy our records damnit !
Theo Parrish: Buy our records. Support us.
Carhartt WIP presents: J.A.W Family Reunion 2019
08/10/2019 - Doug & Jean Carn Black Jazz 50th, Theo Parrish - New Morning - Paris - FR
10/10/2019 - Doug & Jean Carn Black Jazz 50th, Theo Parrish, Nicole Misha - Festsaal Kreuzberg - Berlin - DE
11/10/2019 - Leroy Burgess Full Band, Theo Parrish, Specter - Festsaal Kreuzberg - Berlin - DE
11/10/2019 - 13/10/2019 - Family Reunion Weekender - Griessmuehle - Berlin - DE